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I'm wondering the subject of the second clause in a sentence like

You should tell him to get up and get back to work

The subject of get back to work is ambiguous to me. It could be interpreted as either

You should tell him to get up and [you] get back to work


You should tell him to get up and [him] get back to work

How should I form the sentence so that either option is explicit and unambiguous?

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Why put them together in the first place? You should tell him to get up, and you should get back to work (stress on the second you). – John Lawler Jul 12 '13 at 13:50
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Most readers of the sentence "You should tell him to get up and get back to work" would interpret that to mean

You should tell him that he should get up and he should get back to work.

Your question supposes that the phrase get back to work is a clause that needs a subject. However the full phrase is actually to get back to work. The sentence as constructed is actually

You should tell him:

  • to get up and

  • [to] get back to work

Get back to work is an infinitive phrase used as a noun, one of the two direct objects of tell (him is the indirect object of tell).

I don't think most US English speakers would find it ambiguous. If you wish to be certain, merely make explicit the implied to.

You should tell him to get up and to get back to work.

If the intent of the sentence is to tell the listener that he or she should show diligence (unlikely based on the existing construction), you could simply say

You should tell him to get up, and you should get back to work.

Note the comma before and. In this construction, you have two independent clauses which call for separation.

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English is a middle language when it comes to precision of expression—more accommodating of precision than German (for example) but less so than French.

You are right that "get back to work" is a dangling element in your sentence. Usual English convention is to fix dangling elements in one way or another, but exceptions abound. For example,

The doctor you met yesterday observed the patient, instructed the intern, and took notes as he was making his rounds today.

This hardly brilliant English, of course, but the context and construction make it clear enough that "he" and "his" refer to "[t]he doctor you met yesterday" that one probably would refrain from flagging the pronoun as an error.

In your sentence, the parallel use of the word "get" does admittedly suggest that he, not you, is to "get back to work."

On the other hand, good English style accommodates grammatical ambiguity only occasionally, and only when there is no easy way to fix it. There is indeed an easy way to fix it in your sentence, a way you may already have noticed:

You should tell him to get up and to get back to work.

Though your general question is valid, your specific sentence should be fixed in this way.

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A very balanced answer. Could you possibly add authorities for 'good English style does not happily accommodate grammatical ambiguity', 'better style is always to remove the ambiguity' and 'get back to work in structures like this is a dangling element, and usual English convention is to fix dangling elements'? [adjusted] – Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 at 15:36
@EdwinAshworth: Good questions. No, I haven't authorities to cite, a fact which exposes my answer as being somewhat opinion based. On the other hand, an answer to what constitutes good English writing will always be somewhat opinion based, strictly speaking: we rely on the consensus of good writers. This particular answer of mine does not cite good writers, but if you have citations, feel free to add them. – thb Apr 10 at 12:55
@EdwinAshworth: Did I say 'better style is always to remove the ambiguity'? I can't find where I said that, nor does it especially sound like something I would say -- but maybe I did say it; I don't remember. Regarding dangling elements, my position was that that's just common knowledge. – thb Apr 10 at 13:05
No – I did say I'd made adjustments (the quotes are mine) – I'd thought largely in line with what you wrote, though leaving overall ambiguities is never a good idea in my opinion. Grammatical ambiguity is often resolved by context (We got home. The front window was broken.) – Edwin Ashworth Apr 24 at 23:35

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